Expect dry humour from 39-year-old Ashutosh Sharma, especially when talking about folk musicians in India. He is one of the founders of Amarass Records along with Ankur Malhotra, Avirook Sen and Ravneet Kler. Established in 2009, Amarass produces and curates folk music, and organises folk music festivals across the country. They are well known for producing live shows such as “The Manganiyar Seduction”, held at Purana Qila in New Delhi. Nightwhistlers Entertainment is another event management company founded in 2010 by Sumit Kain and Vidushi. They too created quite a buzz very recently when they organised Swar-Rajya, a festival bringing together and promoting folk performers from across India. And they too were strongly swayed by a desire to ensure that traditional forms of folk art and artists don’t fade away unnoticed in India. These are just two of the many ‘independent’ privately- owned companies that are trying to give folk music and dance in India a leg up.
What was once seen as mostly the government’s preserve, folk music and dance performances in India are increasingly being organised by private event managers. So why is there this sudden surge of interest in everything folk? One of the reasons they started Amarass, says Sharma, was the general apathy that existed in the country towards folk performers. Taking the example of Rajasthan, he says the music differs from region to region. Yet, all the musicians have become mere cultural mascots They are collectively refered to as “Rajasthani musicians”, devoid of any kind of individuality. “Today, even if the most talented folk artists were to play on stage, the audience would not be able to identify the artist,” says Sharma.
Stepping in to give a face to these musicians, Amarass decided to steer the career of Padma Shri awardee, Sakar Khan, a renowned Kamaicha musician from Jaisalmer. But hardly anyone knew him or recognised his talent for what it was worth. This, despite the fact that Sakar Khan toured globally and played with some of the biggest international musicians in the world including American violinist Yehudi Menuhin, George Harrison of The Beatles, and Pandit Ravi Shankar. “This was one musician that Bade Ghulam Ali Saab advised: “Don’t stop playing”, says Sharma, adding that it was only after an article came out in the New York Times about the maestro kamaicha player, that everyone took notice. That is when people, including the media, started calling to ask who the little known musical talent was and what Amarass itself was all about. Subsequently Amarass helped release his first album At home: Sakar Khan,when the kamaicha player was 74 years old. Sadly, this talented musician passed away in 2013.
But all private endeavours aren’t necessarily seen as borne out of cultural concern. There will always be the underlying doubt about the motives of any company venturing into the promotion of the arts and culture. Are they just in it to tick off the CSR box in their corporate profile? Kain says, “It is both, a fact and a misnomer. Many companies do it out of an obligation and some take genuine interest in the promotion of culture through the various events that they fund. However, the fact remains that most of them do not take interest in the folk forms, and do not have any concern for the same.
Kain does not view the role of government bodies in the field of folk arts in a favourable light either. He says despite the resources, the state has not contributed significantly to folk art. While the government has various agencies and bodies under it for the promotion of the folk art, most are ineffectual. Red tape ends up killing the essence of the art form, making it dreary and boring. “From what I’ve noticed,” he says, “these programmes are generally organised by the government bodies for the government bodies. Public engagement, and that of the youth, is limited.
Getting sponsorship is also a big problem. Recalling his own predicament, Kain says : “To organise ‘Swar Rajya’, I had to run from pillar to post. Not a single government body was willing to support our endeavour by providing funds. No state tourism department helped us, despite our repeated requests to provide names of the folk artistes.” He met the same fate when he went asking for funds to the private sector as well. “The corporates too were apprehensive and extremely reluctant to grant us any amount of sponsorship, as they felt it was not a very lucrative venture and a good audience could not be expected.” But thankfully, says Kain, people did turn up for the festival, which can only be an encouraging sign for the future.
Shanta Serbjeet Singh, vice chairman, Sangeet Natak Akademi, is looking sternly at the present though. For starters, she doesn’t believe folk forms exist in their traditional purity any more;. What has taken its place instead, she says, is “mock folk.” Singh maintains: “Folk as a genuine entity, is no longer a reality in most of the world. Most of them have undergone some form of urbanisation.”
Divya Bhatia, festival director of the widely acclaimed Jodhpur RIFF (Rajasthan International Folk Festival) makes a very pertinent point about the perceived dilution of folk music. He says, “Folk music always kept evolving. There was no fixed dimension to it. Where does originality begin and end? The accurate term here is ‘authentic’. Now, how can you tell a true folk artist to play one kind of music and not the other, according to what we feel is right? Who are we to dictate to the artist on what is original or not?”
Mercy is one of the Tetseo sisters, a popular four-member group from Nagaland, who perform traditional Naga folk music ‘Li’ all over the country. The other members include Azi, Kuvelu and Alune. Having performed ever since her childhood, Mercy says she does not believe that music is something rigid: “In fact, all culture is supposed to be fluid and accommodating”, she says before voicing her belief that ‘urbanisation’ is not always detrimental to the art form. “I don’t think anyone can say that culture is being diluted, as one cannot even properly define culture in the first place. It is always evolving.”
Poulami Mukherjee, a freelance journalist, has always had a keen interest in folk music and attended the Swar- Rajya festival. She says, “These festivals give a chance to somehow connect, rather re-connect with our roots through the music. Purely from an enthusiast’s point of view I hope more discourse around them takes place in the media.” Here’s hoping the zeal of independent outfits, and the discourse around folk culture, doesn’t abate anytime soon.